Flawed International Farm Seed Rules Establish Permanent Spread of Patented GM Brands

food-supply-458x258TheHotSpring.com :: A long-running bellwether legal case in Canada’s farming industry, which has left at least one farmer unable to farm any crop variety of rapeseed (canola) —for fear of having to pay accidental royalties to bio-chemical giant Monsanto—, highlights the need for comprehensive reform of international seed regulation standards. The Canadian courts ruled that the individual farmer had to shoulder the burden of ferreting out any instance of “contamination” of his crop by pollen from nearby genetically-modified (GM) planting, as Monsanto held a patent on the seeds. The farmer, and those who support his claims, argue that there is no means by which anyone can prevent cross-pollination from GM plants.

In These Times reported in 2001 on the initial lower-court ruling that fined the farmer, Percy Schmeiser, for not reporting the invasion of his cropland to Monsanto and failing to compensate them for using their patented rapeseed DNA:

In a landmark victory for corporations heavily invested in genetically engineered foods, on March 29 a Canadian judge ruled that farmer Percy Schmeiser of Bruno, Saskatchewan must pay $105,000 to Monsanto for illegally growing the company’s genetically engineered rapeseed, from which canola oil is made. But Schmeiser says he never planted Monsanto’s seeds. “How can somebody put anything on someone else’s land, then claim it’s theirs and say, ‘We’ll take it. We’ll sue him. We’ll fine him’?” he asks.

In 1995, Monsanto put on the market a rapeseed that had been engineered to be immune to its Roundup Ready herbicide. This means a farmer can spray the herbicide over a planted field and kill all the weeds growing there, but not hurt the crop. The company sells the rapeseed- about half the rape planted in Saskatchewan in 1999 came from Monsanto seeds-but keeps the rights to the DNA itself. Thus, rather than save seeds from last year’s crop to use this year, as many do, and as Schmeiser traditionally has done, farmers must buy new rapeseed from Monsanto each year, and allow the company to inspect their fields.

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A later Supreme Court ruling threw out the fine assessed against Schmeiser, which would have required him to pay the entire profits from his 1998 crop to the bio-chemical firm whose seeds had taken root on his land. In 2004, the BBC reported on the Canadian Supreme Court’s ruling in the case, again giving the victory to Monsanto:

Canada’s Supreme Court on Friday ruled that Percy Schmeiser, who was found to be growing the GM rapeseed in 1998, had breached Monsanto’s patent.

He had denied planting Monsanto seeds, saying they took root on his land through natural cross-pollination.

Logically incoherent as the ruling may be —many farmers not only resist using GM seed varieties, but argue they may be dangerous for the long-term sustainability of agriculture on a given plot of land, and view the “contamination” problem as just that, a wholesale invasion of natural resources like air, water and land, by a potentially harmful and unwanted pollutant—, it is instructive to note how powerful the logic of bio-tech patents has become, edging out even the logic of a clean, natural alternative.

The International Seed Federation has told the BBC World Service that once genetically modified crops are considered to be tested and safe, and have a growing and harvest history, they are treated as “conventional” crops, meaning that regulation of cross-pollination and “purity” measures used for conventional seeds can be applied. This is part of the logic that puts the burden on farmers, to be able to distinguish between seeds they have planted, and seeds produced by their own plants, but which were the result of cross-pollination from other farmers’ fields, planted with GM varieties.

In 1999, the British charity ActionAid warned —as reported by the BBC— that “Genetically-modified (GM) crops and the patents to protect them are a threat to millions of poor farmers”. The group warned that the application of patent law to favor GM brands that can spread beyond the control of farmers meant landowners and workers in the developing world could find themselves at the mercy of powerful international firms, as their seeds reach dominance in a given market or region.

In some cases, international firms have sought patents to crops they did not invent or develop, but whose properties they may have studied, putting at risk the livelihood of farmers who had grown those crops long before the patent was sought or obtained. ActionAid’s 1999 warning stated that:

The seed market is now dominated by a few giant transnational corporations, all competing to take out patents which claim the right to own and exploit crops such as a variety of Basmati rice, grown for many years by third world farmers.

The group warned that due to the strict rules regarding harvesting, seed storage and repurchase, the system established by the marketing of patented GM seeds could force poor farmers onto “an expensive treadmill of dependence on the firms’ seeds and chemicals”.

Indeed, the warnings of ActionAid have not only been borne out, they are the specific marketing strategy of the firms distributing GM seeds: if you use them, you must pay for a new batch of them the following year and are barred from using seeds from the plants themselves to replant the following year. This system is established exclusively to protect the marketing strategy and bottom lines of the firms that have patented these seed varieties, regardless of their actual role in creating the seeds, regardless of the natural pollination process, and regardless of the motives of the firms in selling the seeds.

Monsanto, for instance, developed the variety of rapeseed it sold to Schmeiser’s neighbors specifically in order to be able to sell on a massive scale a weed-killer (herbicide) it also markets. The one product was created in order to expand the market of the other, for the benefit of the firm itself, but that did not stop Monsanto from imposing on customers the requirement that they “buy new rapeseed from Monsanto each year, and allow the company to inspect their fields”, as noted by In These Times.

Key to the concerns about this regulatory structure is the fact that there is little burden placed on the bio-chemical firms to take responsibility for contamination, which under this structure directly benefits their own bottom line. While some nations continue to ban the use of GM seeds for human consumption, the firms pushing to have them introduced have been gaining ground by way of accidental contamination, which some argue is not, in fact, accidental at all, but part of the broader strategy. In the year 2000, the Environment News Service reported:

The outcome of the landmark Schmeiser v. Monsanto case could influence how much control biotechnology companies like Monsanto and Advanta —the Canadian company which this year inadvertently distributed genetically contaminated rapeseed oil in Europe— have over the world’s food supply in this century. “Farmers here are calling it a reign of terror,” said Schmeiser as he recalled the bizarre chain of events which brought him into unyielding conflict with Monsanto.

Ultimately, farmers like Percy Schmeiser have been forced to abandon certain crops altogether. Without ever having entered into a business agreement with Monsanto, the firm’s seeds essentially claimed access to his land and left him in the legal predicament of ceasing rapeseed production altogether or paying an annual fee to Monsanto. The absurd legal reasoning —that a firm who produces a product considered overtly hostile to the very livelihood of a given individual, can strip that individual of his right to continue operating in a business he has long conducted, without providing that individual any benefit, compensation or rights of any kind— illustrates how poorly even the most developed nations have planned for the very real problems that will emerge from the introduction of genetically modified crops into the broader food web.

Schmeiser did abandon rapeseed production, and was ordered to turn over any plants containing Monsanto-patented DNA to the firm. In 2006, Food Watch published an interview with Schmeiser, who said that after GMOs (genetically manipulated organisms) were cleared for commercial use in agriculture in Canada, in 1996:

There were two crops: Canola (rapeseed) and soybeans. In the United States at the same time there was corn (maize) and cotton. In Canada now there is no pure rapeseed left. It is all now contaminated with GMOs and the same with soybeans. It’s very difficult to say how many hectares have been actually seeded with GMOs, but as mentioned, the actual production of all rapeseed has some GMOs in it. There is no such thing as co-existence or containment as we have found out.

Asked about the benefits of using GMOs, the embattled canola farmer told Food Watch:

There’s no benefit at all. Because our rapeseed is contaminated with GMOs the economic effect has been disastrous for farmers, as we can no longer sell rapeseed to many countries in the world. The price of rapeseed has dropped almost in half. Countries like Australia that have not permitted GMO rapeseed are now receiving a premium for their rapeseed. In addition to this, organic farmers and conventional farmers can no longer grow organic soybeans or rapeseed in Canada, taking choice away and limiting the crops they can grow organically.

According to the report, there was no labeling of foods for GMOs in Canada, as of 2006. There continues to be widespread concern about potential adverse long-term effects of GM crops, not only on agriculture and environmental resilience, but also on human health, for which there is no available evidence and no reliable studies. There has been, since the initial introduction of GMOs in Canada, an effort to prevent the further planting of GMOs there, and as of 2006, no new crops, beyond rapeseed and soya, had seen the introduction of GM seed varieties.

While in the European Union, a regulatory paradigm of “co-existence” between farmers who use GMOs and those who don’t has been promoted as the ideal legal framework, Schmeiser told Food Watch that “there is no such thing as co-existence or containment.” He warned that:

The GMO gene is a dominant gene and will render whatever species of seeds or plants it gets into. You cannot contain cross-pollination. Pollination does not only blow in the wind, but can also move by other means such as birds, bees, animals, or direct seed movement by blowing in the wind, transportation, floods, and many other ways. You cannot build a wall high enough to contain it. So again, there is no such thing as containment regardless of how many kilometers a field of GMOs is from another field, which means there is absolutely no such thing as co-existence. Once GMOs are introduced, it is over and as far as we know today, there is no coming back.

Critics have long argued that the impossibility of containment was a deliberate part of the long-term marketing strategy of the firms introducing patented GMOs. Whether or not this is true, there are real problems inherent in the dominance of a single crop variety. The dangers of monoculture are well-known, and historically, overfarming of a single variety has led to catastrophic consequences, such as with the Irish potato famine, where a new pest or environmental factor, against which that one variety is not sufficiently resilient, wipes out an entire crop, potentially leading to mass starvation, prolonged economic fallout, or mass migration.

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